CIO interview: Peter Ransom, chief information officer, Oxfam

Oxfam works in 98 countries and as one of the world's leading development charities, demands for a better IT service are on the rise.

Oxfam works in 98 countries and as one of the world's leading development charities, demands for a better IT service are on the rise, so a new global strategy involving better infrastructure and the cloud are being introduced by chief information officer Peter Ransom.

The CIO was tasked with the transformation two years ago and, following a year of bringing in new structures and processes, as well as a drive based on the pillars of "design, deliver, operate and perform," the team is moving into the execution stage.

"This year is all about getting quality from projects and driving performance," he told Computer Weekly.

Ransom joined the charity not long after a re-organisation and a "semi-downsizing" to react to what Oxfam thought would be a reduction in income. These measures had a direct impact on the 160-strong IT department.

"We are now working with the business to understand the challenge and their issues, which is still ongoing. We also have to build credibility with the business areas, as well as better relationships and show that we can deliver," he says.

Networking issues

Apart from the leadership aspects of his new challenge, Ransom found that Oxfam's network, which includes 7,500 nodes worldwide, was in dire need of attention.

"Oxfam has grown and changed from being an organisation that developed organically in the UK to a full international operation, which became more powerful and demanding more from their systems," Ransom says.

"The emphasis shifted to being a global operation. The infrastructure hasn't fully caught up with that yet - but we are quite close to it now."

An important part of getting the house in order is a recently-launched process to find a supplier to handle the charity's global network operation. The request for information was launched in July.

"However, we still have to make the case to the board - it is a very challenging project, it will cost money and the more we spend on internal infrastructure, the less we have to spend in the field. But we need those systems to perform in the field, so it is a delicate and difficult discussion," says Ransom.

"The networks need to be beefed up not only in terms of capacity, but in terms of being able to manage and monitor them effectively - and the infrastructure at the moment isn't really built for that; that's why we need to work with a partner," he says.

"Networks are vital to our operation, whereas before they were just useful - it's a real emphasis change. And the networks are used for everything we do, from video conferencing to media production, you name it."

To illustrate the reliance of Oxfam on networks that operate effectively, Ransom says the internal media team and journalists frequently tap into a vast video and image library from the areas where the charity carries out its work, so the content can be disseminated as support material for fundraising.

As a result, bandwidth is always an issue, particularly in poorer areas that rely in satellite or 3G links.

"Despite the fact that we are strengthening our network, it is difficult to say what will happen in future, but it is inconceivable to say that we will have high-speed networks everywhere in the next five years," says Ransom.

"You can sort of see that we will have 80-90% coverage because of increasingly widespread mobile coverage. But unfortunately, [the areas that remain with poor connectivity] will only be able to use limited applications."

Cloud trials

A few years ago, Oxfam virtualised its two datacentres in Oxford, which generated cost savings and improved efficiency. Now the charity is moving on to the next step of IT evolution with a private cloud set up under a recently-signed contract with IBM.

Following a five-month negotiation with various vendors, the charity ended up choosing IBM and work commenced two months ago. The supplier is responsible for delivering the platform, support and updates for what is, in effect, a virtual datacentre.

The contract also includes full disaster recovery and the data requirements can be flexed up and down. This is particularly useful for Oxfam as it gives the NGO the ability to support growth, especially if its websites come under strain with a lot of traffic.

The first application to be moved onto the new environment in the next few months will be a new web content management system. Ransom expects that most of Oxfam's customer-facing web applications will be moved to the cloud environment. The IT chief is also considering whether it would be possible to move the organisation's Peoplesoft business application.

"We will need to check how easy it will be for staff to access the cloud environment via satellite links, if that works better or worse for them," says Ransom.

"And we will migrate gradually, test it to see how it goes. But one of the biggest issues I can see ahead of us is data management . We will have to pay for every terabyte and every time we create a new server, there will be costs, so data management is very important for us," he says.

"We do have a service model though, so it all depends on where we deploy it and ultimately the contract allows us to know what our costs will be moving forward."

The overall aim is to move Oxfam's IT more towards managed services and application management , so the team can "focus on the business-critical delivery rather than server patching," says Ransom.

On the future of the cloud strategy, however, he did not want to appear totally "sold" on the approach: "Not everything will sit on that cloud, it's a bit like a big pilot. We will have to see if the partner is right for us as well."

Taking advantage of consumerisation

Ransom's team is also looking at the possibility of using virtualised desktops and is looking to capitalise on the consumerisation of IT trend.

"One of the problems, or solutions, that we have is the proliferation of user devices. They want to use the devices they are comfortable with, so we are looking into how realistic it would be to deploy the Oxfam desktop to a virtual environment," he says.

"We haven't decided in which way we will do that, but it could be that we will use slightly different methods for those who are based in the UK and those based abroad," he says.

"Our strategy around these developments is very light, but the idea is to really embrace it. Consumerisation of IT is here and in the future there will be more devices, not less."

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